Interview on Triple J Hack with Tom Tilley
VET Student Loans; Vocational education ombudsman; Provider and course eligibility; Higher education reform 

Tom Tilley: Shalailah Medhora reporting on the crackdown on the VET sector, the changes the Government introduced into Parliament, and they’ll come into effect in January. And, as you heard, one of them is to introduce an ombudsman that’ll help you, or someone you know, get some money back from a dodgy education provider or help with any concerns you have. Let’s find out more about how that will work. Simon Birmingham is the Minister for Education and Training and he’s been working on these reforms.

Simon Birmingham, thanks so much for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: G’day Tom, great to be with you again.

Tom Tilley: Yeah, great to have you back on the show. It’s been really interesting to speak to you a number of times this year about the sector, and we put the problems of our listeners directly to you, and it seems like you’ve actually done something about it which is incredible, it gives people faith in politicians. 

Simon Birmingham: [Laughs].

Tom Tilley: It took three years of government for you guys, but you are now establishing an ombudsman to help students wade through the problems they might have with dodgy courses or colleges. For anyone that might need that help, how do they get in touch with the ombudsman and what’s the process?

Simon Birmingham: Well the ombudsman is being established, so what people should do in the interim is get in touch with my department. The best way to do that is simply to go to education.gov.au, that way they can follow all of the relevant links to send a message through. We have a specialised complaints handling unit in place that’s handled thousands of requests for assistance already, has successfully ensured that millions of dollars from around 80 different providers – TAFEs, private providers, the whole mix – have actually been assisted, had their fees remitted as a result of there being clear evidence of malpractice in those instances.

Tom Tilley: And will the ombudsman investigate old claims or just new problems that emerge from this point forward?

Simon Birmingham: The ombudsman will be able to investigate claims. It of course has to look at claims as to where there have been breaches in accordance with the law at the time. So, it can have a look at, absolutely, arguments about whether what was delivered is what was promised, and therefore take up cases on behalf of students in that regard. 

And, look, we’re eager to make sure that we do that where people have a legitimate gripe. And even when you were, I think, last covering this topic you had a caller on air, Ria, who had a bad experience with New South Wales TAFE, and I’m pleased to say that we’ve managed to get them to remit her debt which will be re-credited or cancelled essentially in this instance. So, we’ve been getting good success in that space, but more importantly for the future is that hopefully we’ve put in place a robust system that ensures students aren’t lured into these circumstances or face these problems again in the future.

Tom Tilley: Alright, you’ve put some tougher conditions on the education providers who want to get access to government-supported loans. Do you think that means that there’ll be lots of providers that won’t get access to those loans? I mean, could you give us an idea; would it cut out 10 per cent of providers that were getting loans or more than that? Can you give us an idea how many might not make the cut?

Simon Birmingham: Well, we’ve given automatic entry into this new VET student loans program to all public providers, so TAFEs or universities who operate in the vocational space or other government-owned entities. So firstly, all of those types of providers, people should have confidence will be continuing to offer student-supported loans through the Federal Government under the new program into the future. 

Others, private providers, are having to go through a more rigorous assessment process where we’re having a look at their historic completion rates, their compliance history, their employment outcomes, to make sure that they’re up to scratch. Now, I expect that a good number of them who have had good strong outcomes in the past will transition into the new scheme successfully, but some won’t. I don’t want to pre-empt exactly what that will be. We have put out already for those providers the criteria against which they’re being assessed, so they should have a fair indication and knowledge themselves as to whether they’re likely to make it, and we’ll be getting outcomes in terms of their application settled as quickly as we can over the next week or two.

Tom Tilley: You’re listening to Simon Birmingham, who’s the Minister for Education and Training, and we’re talking about changes to the VET sector, tightening it up so people don’t get ripped off is basically what’s going on here. One of the contentious points, Simon Birmingham, is the fact that you’ve significantly narrowed the range of courses that students can now get government loans to study. And we just heard in that story that you cut a lot of arts courses, even some technology courses like gaming, when you were the government that at the election said that we’re all about innovation. Was that hot air?

Simon Birmingham: Not at all, Tom. So, we put in place a clear methodology for this, that a course to be eligible for taxpayer-subsidised student loans needed to be on two different states’ skills need list, or …

Tom Tilley: [Interrupts] So, that means that states have the say, basically? Why would you do that?

Simon Birmingham: Well, because the states and territories have methodologies in place for the vocational education system which they overwhelmingly run and regulate. They have methodologies in place already to assess where they need qualifications and what the skills- where the jobs are in those states.

Tom Tilley: But is that methodology working when we’re not seeing people supported to do these courses? It could be important either for Australia’s economy, innovation sector, or even our cultural life.

Simon Birmingham: Well Tom, if you look at it, of the courses that actually made the cut, they account for around 95 per cent of all current enrolments across the current VET FEE-HELP system. So, the vast majority of people who have been enrolling, if they were to turn up again in the future would still be able to access student loans for the same qualifications, 95 per cent. There are a number of arts courses, around 13 arts-related diploma or advanced diploma courses that have made it onto the new list based on this methodology. So, it hasn’t been discriminatory in any sense, it’s been neutral in terms of what the actual discipline of study is, simply looking at whether or not it is an area of identified skills need and likely job outcomes in the economy.

And, look, in relation to gaming and technology, pretty much from what we can tell, every technology-related, specifically technology-related course, actually has made it onto the new list …

Tom Tilley: [Talks over] Alright let’s …

Simon Birmingham: … a lot of the providers are complaining about the loan cap that we’ve put in place, and that relates to the fee inflation that we’ve seen recently, but those courses themselves are actually on the list.

Tom Tilley: Just quickly, what’s happening in the area of university reform? Because as we all very well know, over two years ago, Tony Abbott and the Education Minister Christopher Pyne at the time said our unis were going to slide into mediocrity without the Government’s deregulation changes. In that time, two years, that reform hasn’t happened. Is there anything happening in that space? Is there a desperate need to change … or, you know, are we going to slide into mediocrity, or was that just hyperbole?

Simon Birmingham: Well, Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne did release a package of higher education reforms. It was rejected by the Senate, and Malcolm Turnbull and I made clear earlier this year that we would not be proceeding with full fee deregulation, [indistinct] …

Tom Tilley: [Talks over] But what are you doing?

Simon Birmingham: … go back and consult closely with the university sector, students, and other stakeholders about how it is that we best finance universities in the future, noting that the investment by federal taxpayers in supporting university students has grown at twice the rate of the economy since 2009. So we’ve seen huge additional investment go into backing universities, and that’s something that we’re happy to maintain, but we have to make sure that growth is sustainable into the future, and we want to ensure that students are being supported in courses to get jobs into the future as well. So …

Tom Tilley: Alright.

Simon Birmingham: … I’m coming to the end of a consultation process early next year which will see clearer admission standards applied, better transparency in terms of outcomes, and we’ll be trying to address some of those budget factors as well.

Tom Tilley: Alright, Simon Birmingham, it’s been great having you on the show this year. I’m afraid this might be the last time, which is very sad. Thank you for joining us.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks Tom and have a cracking new year. To all the Triple J listeners out there, I hope it’s a wonderful Christmas, lots of good, happy and safe celebrations.

Tom Tilley: Alright, thank you.